Baseball participation nationwide highest since 2008

March 14th, 2024

The Wall Street Journal explained “Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball.” The Washington Post lamented a sport “Behind the Curve.” The Los Angeles Times asked if the national pastime was “Past Its Time?”

These headlines from 2015 were all rooted in participation data that did not bode well for baseball. Though revenue and attendance at the Major League level were strong, a reported 14.5% decline in youth participation in the previous five years was labeled an existential threat to the grand old game.

“A pervasive emphasis on performance over mere fun and exercise has driven many children to focus exclusively on one sport from an early age, making it harder for all sports to attract casual participants,” Brian Costa wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “But the decline of baseball as a community sport has been especially precipitous.”

That storyline has been thrown a curve.

These days, the “baseball is dying” narrative is what’s actually dying. The rule changes that brought about a dramatically improved pace and helped usher in a 9.6% attendance uptick got a lot of ink in 2023. But beneath the surface, MLB also saw the benefits of its grassroots efforts to embed itself in the hearts and minds of youngsters by getting bats and balls in their hands at an early age.

In the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) recently released Topline Participation Report for 2023, baseball participation nationwide was calculated at 16.7 million -- the highest officially recorded level since SFIA’s survey of more than 120 sports began in 2008.

Casual participation in baseball -- the kind encouraged by the Play Ball initiative -- was at more than 8.9 million participants, an increase of 108% from 2014 (the year prior to the launch of Play Ball).

SFIA also reported a 6% increase in softball participation from 2022 to 2023. The combined increase in participation for baseball and softball (+7.6%) was higher than that of basketball (+5.6%) and football (+3.6%).

“That is a positive not only for today,” said Tom Cove, president and CEO of SFIA, “but for a growth trajectory in the future.”

In the years leading up to those ugly headlines from 2015, Cove said he implored executives at MLB to be mindful of the dwindling youth participation data not just in baseball but in team sports, in general. The years after the Great Recession of the late 2000s were lean ones in the youth team sports space, and the costs associated with baseball made it especially vulnerable to the change in trend.

“For baseball, it was critical,” Cove said. “Because baseball, in previous generations, we took for granted that it was the national pastime and there wasn’t much competition. It owned summer. But the world has changed. You’ve got competition now from new sports and old sports in the baseball season. You need to understand the factors that are influencing [the data] and then build up the positives of the emotional joy of playing and accessibility and putting a product in kids’ hands.”

Enter Play Ball.

When Rob Manfred took office as Commissioner in early 2015, he said his No. 1 priority was getting kids interested in baseball again. Play Ball was launched in partnership with USA Baseball and USA Softball that summer with a web site and app that provided coaching tips and other resources and highlighted the many ways the game could be played outside of traditionally organized leagues and tournaments, from playing catch to stickball to Wiffle ball to skills competitions like Pitch, Hit & Run. In that first year, Manfred attended the National Conference of Mayors and got 140 pledges from 140 cities to hold a Play Ball event in the month of August.

The program has only grown from there (this year, more than 350 cities have pledged to participate) and now has activations throughout the baseball calendar, centered around the global Play Ball Weekend that will be held June 14-16 this year.

“We’ve done activations all over the world, everywhere from Mount Rushmore to some really tough neighborhoods,” said Tony Reagins, MLB’s chief baseball development officer. “When you’re fortunate enough to go around the country and around the world and see some of these events, we put a bat and ball in a young person’s hand, and the immediate reaction is a smile. That means they’re having fun doing what they’re doing. The chances of them wanting to do it again are strong.”

Fun At Bat, a free bat-and-ball program under the Play Ball umbrella that helps introduce children in physical education classes in the U.S. and abroad to baseball and softball, provides those same smiles.

Cove said the Play Ball and Fun At Bat programs had baseball perfectly positioned to take advantage of a post-pandemic boom in team sport participation. SFIA reported about 70 million team sports participants in 2019, and it took until '22 to reach that number again. Last year, the number jumped to 78 million.

“MLB was ahead of the game in terms of creating an environment to put the joy of playing baseball and softball into young boys’ and girls’ hands and minds, far before the pandemic,” Cove said. “There was nothing anybody could do about breaking up teams [during COVID], but they were set up to come back.”

Cove also cited MLB’s affiliation with RCX Sports, the official operator of MLB’s youth baseball and softball skills competitions (Jr. Home Run Derby and Pitch, Hit & Run) as a productive pairing that resonates with kids.

With MLB Develops programs such as the DREAM Series, Breakthrough Series, Hank Aaron Invitational, Elite Development Invitational, MLB Tour & MLB Grit creating greater access and opportunity within baseball and softball among diverse communities, baseball’s reach in the youth space has grown considerably in the last decade.

“I look at African-Americans and the talent level we’ve seen over the last five years, and it’s night and day from when I first got here in 2015,” Reagins said. “A lot of folks have this as a priority, and we are starting to see some movement.”

Reagins added that MLB is looking to form other partnerships that will increase the scale of its youth programs.

SFIA’s latest report is the surest sign yet that the grassroots efforts that launched in 2015 are reaping real benefits … and negating old headlines.

“You have to do the things we’re doing to change that narrative,” said Reagins, “and impact what’s happening on the ground.”